How Tennessee’s win over Maryland explains men’s college basketball in 2022-23

How Tennessee’s win over Maryland explains men’s college basketball in 2022-23

How Tennessee’s win over Maryland explains men’s college basketball in 2022-23

BROOKLYN, NY – Early Sunday pre-game at Long Island University, the entire Tennessee basketball team crowded around a hoop. Two balls got stuck in the net, then three, and then someone decided that the Volunteers had to get all the balls stuck between the rim and the backboard. When they achieved the aforementioned goal, with Julian Phillips placing last in place of him, the players celebrated with applause.

And that was the end of frivolity.

For most teams, game day walkthroughs include more drills for housing basketballs than doing anything terribly productive. Players let go, stretch, throw a few shots, maybe enjoy a midcourt shooting contest, and get moving. Tennessee worked defensively. Slides and recoveries and shotguns. Flushing. Repeat, the Vols working on real foam before calling it quits 90 minutes later.

When, three hours later, they took the field and stifled Maryland during a first half in which the Terrapins hit a 2-point shot, three field goals all together and put up 17 points, it all made sense. The Vols clearly top Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency for a reason. But just as fans settled for the rout — “you’re kidding me,” one groaned after Patric Emilien twice blasted a full-court shot in which the closest defender was three boroughs in New York – the 2022-23 season happened.

At just over a month away, it seems premature to make any bold, sweeping statements, but it seems safe to say this year is going to be… messy. If one game can be emblematic of what’s happening nationwide, this is it. Maryland stormed back from a 17-point halftime deficit, scoring more points in the first nine minutes of the second half than they could have in the entire first. Tennessee threatened to unravel, its own struggles to score without Josiah-Jordan James (knee) and Jonas Aidoo (flu) all but nullifying its defensive effort entirely, before the Vols rallied to hang on to the final threads of a win for 56-53.

Next, Rick Barnes and Kevin Willard met in the midfield, both shrugging in sort of an “I don’t-know-what-just-happened” moment. Barnes later said he was proud his team stood up, Willard said he was impressed that he fought back, and both weren’t sure what to make of it all. “If you look around the country right now, I’m not sure anyone has settled down as if they’re in a higher plane than everyone else,” Barnes said. “The trial will be a big obstacle for everyone. We’ve played games like this before and will do it again. Might as well get used to it.”

It was easy to attribute early parity to young, new players to men’s college basketball who understood what they were doing. But the game is older. COVID-19 has doled out extra years of eligibility, complicating how experience is measured. Pomeroy, for example, has switched to a “minutes played” metric to try to combat the way different schools report class years to account for COVID. But even with that, 157 teams average over two years of college basketball experience; That might not sound like much, but in college circles, measure age in dog years.

So what happens with the upside down results? Just this weekend, Houston, looking like the meanest, meanest team in college basketball, surrendered more runs in half their season average in a home loss to Alabama. Purdue was pushed to the brink by Nebraska, before winning in overtime. Creighton lost to BYU. And Tennessee was nearly beaten after looking unbeatable for 20 minutes. And it’s not that these games are outliers. The whole season has been extravagant. Baylor was trucked by Marquette and then trucked Gonzaga in turn. Michigan State beat Kentucky and was burned by Notre Dame, and the Wildcats, not to be left out, lost to the Zags after the Zags were hit by Texas. That would be Texas, who by the way lost this week to Illinois, who then lost to Penn State at home.

Don’t try the transitive theory of college basketball at home, guys.

Willard, for example, wonders if the problem isn’t the program. College basketball has long produced the best season finale in all sports and the least impressive start. November and December traditionally included a few party week meetings in remote island havens and a guaranteed match parade. If there’s a silver lining to COVID, it’s that many college basketball coaches have decided to take off their training wheels and go play each other.

There are more one-of-a-kind events and mini-tournaments made for TV than ever before. Combine those with an expanding field of multi-team events – and especially this year, PK85 in Portland – and you have really good teams playing really good starting teams.

Which is great for college basketball. And not so great for the wins and losses column.

Some coaches have been building their programs this way for years. Tom Izzo basically has “anywhere, anytime” stitched into the fabric of Michigan State uniforms. Gonzaga has made his national hay by trudging across the country, and Mark Few doesn’t seem too interested in stopping now that his team is among the country’s elite. Scott Drew will apparently be playing anywhere anyone can make a pickleball court in a ballroom.

But there’s a trade-off in chasing games across the country. “I think the good thing about these games this time of year is that you really get to know your team,” Willard said. “But I’m not sure if it’s right for these guys. Many of our problems, we haven’t had time to practice. You really need to balance your schedule a bit. I’ve learned a lot, but I also think we’ve also regressed a bit. The way we’ve been playing for the last week and a half, we’re not as sharp as we were in the beginning, and that’s because we haven’t practiced.”

It has a valid point. His Terps played Tuesday in Louisville, Friday at home against Illinois, Tuesday at Wisconsin and Sunday against Tennessee in Brooklyn … and will host UCLA on Wednesday. Unbeaten a week ago, the Terps have now lost two in a row.

Likewise, Purdue looked unbeatable in Portland, but then its flight was delayed and the Boilermakers made the trip from Portland to West Lafayette to Tallahassee in four days. Not so surprisingly, they seemed a little muted compared to the state of Florida. Baylor played Vegas twice, moved back to Waco and then went to Milwaukee for his bombing.

But the solution isn’t to get rid of the good games. Sports have to force the conversation into November and December, and the only way to do that is by scheduling games with some flesh on their bones. The solution is to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. The beauty of college basketball, unlike college football, is that no one is eliminated from contention in one game. The committee has systematically rewarded teams that play tough programs and punishes those who feast on creampuffs.

Even Willard, who no one will ever accuse of being an optimist, found a lot to celebrate about his team (if he could stop staring at offensive rebound differential). The Terps were picked to finish 10th in the Big Ten with good reason, yet they’ve already worked their way into the top 25 with a quality schedule and competitive results. What’s more, Maryland has proven to be both resilient and tenacious, two words no one would have used to describe them a year ago.

Meanwhile, Barnes, who might have been glowering at the second half, also reached for the glass half full. Tobe Awaka, who is averaging 1.1 points per game, answered the call to close the gap by scoring seven and adding eight rebounds. And the Vols, who apparently left all of their shots in the basket during the walkthrough, won despite only connecting 28 percent from the floor. “People always tell me how good a team could be if they just made their shots,” said Barnes. “If you’re doing your own snaps, it always looks nice. But can you win when it’s bad? The second half was pretty bad for us and we found a way to win.”

And for the 2022-23 season, that could be good enough.

(Photo: Jessica Alcheh/USA Today)

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